Your browser does not support JavaScript! Food Safety Archives ⋆ The BioExpert

Search Results


Tracking and tracing foods through the supply chain and the role of blockchain


Part 1- Tracking and Tracing

This is a two-part series of blogs. The first blog will deal with tracking and tracing products through the supply chain, since tracking of products is a prerequisite to blockchain implementation. The second blog will deal with the current status of blockchain, its advantages and the hurdles that need to be overcome.

Drivers of food traceability

As food is transferred from farm to fork, it involves a complex network of participants. The product from an ingredient producer could end up in hundreds or even thousands of different products on the supermarket shelf.
A single ingredient can cause a chain reaction of recalls.  In 2016 Valley Milk Products (VMP) recall of dry milk and dried buttermilk resulted in a subsequent ripple effect of companies that used the VMP products as raw ingredients, affecting over 40 companies. A tertiary recall was generated by companies that used products of the secondary group causing more companies to recall their products.  Food tracking can eliminate this problem.
Food traceability initiatives are being driven by increased regulation and consumer demand for transparency. Ideally foods can be tracked from the farm to the table allowing all producers along the line to monitor the movement of the product. If food is exposed to contaminants at any point along the chain, it’s easier to mitigate the risks and keep food out the hands of the public.
One of the hurdles to food tracking is the lack of standard requirements. Current traceability systems are limited in most cases to ”one step forward and one step back.” Therefore, they do not provide means for reliable and rapid response to trace back data across the food chain.
Some think about the food supply chain as linear: from suppliers of raw agricultural products to producers and processors, through distributors to retailers and finally consumers. However, in reality, the system is very complex with interconnected network of nodes making it look more like an intricate web.
Today companies have recordkeeping systems in place that range from manual to sophisticated electronic-based systems. However, the time has come for global end-to-end universal food traceability. There is a need for a software platform that will track down the necessary information promptly.
Especially larger food companies are embracing global standards to increase efficiencies and build traceability and supply chain visibility into the system. The goal is to increase information availability at every step of the supply chain, allowing food businesses to identify potential hazards and mitigate the risk of compromised product.

Regulatory drivers:

Section 204 of FSMA covers traceability describing the detection and response to food safety problems. The regulation focuses on the response side and not necessarily traceability that continues to be the weak link for the regulators. Many of the statute components that are built into FSMA are based on prior experiences and situations. One big fiasco with traceability was the tomato/pepper issue in 2008 when the commodity was wrongly identified (tomato vs. peppers), and it took close to eight weeks to figure out that it was wrong. Another one was the recent lettuce outbreak that took months to identify the source of contamination. Traceability is essential. The FDA would love for the traceability requirements to be more forceful, but they are limited by what is practical and economically feasible. Looking to the future, it is entirely reasonable that traceability requirements will be strengthened.
Recently (June 13, 2018) the Canadian government published the final Safe Food for Canadian Regulations (SFCR) that will be enforced on January 15, 2019. These regulations mandate an international standard for traceability, requiring that information be kept in the form of electronic or paper records. The traceability requirements of SFCR are similar to the FSMA requirements for a food safety plan, recordkeeping and mandatory recalls.
The current requirements only require one-up, one-down (where did you get the product from, where did you send the product to). The regulatory agency does not have the statutory authority to require companies to use electronic record-keeping. The FDA recognizes that electronic record-keeping is the way of the future and prefers it, but they cannot enforce it. They will let companies keep their records in any format that they decide providing that they can produce the information within 24 hours when requested.

Standardization of traceability

A significant hindrance to effective product tracing is the lack of consistency in data collection in addition to the lack of definitions of key terms such as “lot” or “batch.”
Currently, there are some initiatives (Produce tracing Initiative, Food Service GS1 US Standard Initiative, and GS1 US Retail Grocery Initiative), that are making progress in getting better systems for traceability.
GS1 (a non-profit organization) developed and maintains global standards for business communication; their standards are designed to improve the efficiency, safety, and visibility of supply chains across physical and digital channels. Many companies have committed to the track and trace of products using GS1 Standards.
 Many are utilizing GS1-128 barcodes, applied at the case level of produce, enabling to program product identifiers in addition to batch/lot/serial numbers, best-by dates, variable weight information and more. This information can help companies isolate affected product s during a recall.
The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), with industry support, launched the Global Food Traceability Center (GFTC) in September 2013. The GFTC is an unbiased, knowledgeable, science-based advisor that advances insight and understanding about food traceability, and focuses on addressing issues and challenges of implementing improvements in food traceability while increasing transparency about the food.
They recommended what information to record as the product moves along the supply chain intending that the trial of the product can be followed. The key data elements that should be provided in an electronic form using an approved standardized format. Information recorded should include the location that last handled the product, Incoming lot numbers of product received, product amounts, physical location where cases were shipped Lot number(s) shipped to each location, and date/time.
For producers, processors, re-packers, etc. it should include date/time of manufacturing, all ingredients used in the manufacture of the product, together with their corresponding lot numbers, the source of the ingredients, and when they were received.
According to FoodLogiQ, GS1 Standards are the most widely used supply chain standards in the world, with over 1 million companies using it. The key to the implementation of track and trace is a universal database built with GS1 standards, including all suppliers in the plan, standardized labels and Product IDs, product location, with the ability for quick removal if needed.
Wiltse the CEO of FoodLogiQ said: “The food industry is plagued with data from disparate and disconnected sources,” to become blockchain ready one needs to get their data in a standardized format. It is imperative that all participants in the supply chain use the same language regarding the product’s name and location. This allows for data aggregation when data is transferred back and forth. FoodLogiQ Connect achieves this by using a Global Trade Identification Number (GTIN) to uniquely identify the item name, in addition to a Global Location Number (GLN) that provides its specific location.

Elements of track and trace affords

To take advantage of technologies that are becoming available to the food industry such as smart sensors, IoT, and blockchain, the new tracing system should accommodate smart sensors to monitor products from start to finish, assuring that standards are consistently met. With real-time data transmitted continuously, food that doesn’t meet temperature standards is instantly identified and discarded before it has a chance to cause harm.

The Latest Update in the E. coli romaine lettuce outbreak from FDA and CDC


Outbreak update

Lettuce irrigationUpdate reports from both the CDC and the FDA summarized the status of the outbreak after its conclusion. As of June 27, 2018, the human toll from the romaine lettuce outbreak was: 210 people infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7, 96 hospitalized, 27 developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, and 5 deaths were reported from 36 states. The most recent victim became sick on June 6.
In an evaluation of the environment in the Yuma growing area, including water, soil, and manure, the CDC laboratory identified the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7 in water samples taken from a canal in the Yuma growing region. Additional strains of Shiga-toxin producing E. coli were found in the water samples, but initial testing of these isolates indicates they are different than the outbreak strain.   
The authorities did not reveal the canal location or how the bacteria got into the canal. In a statement by Scott Gottlieb, M.D., FDA Commissioner, he said that “More work needs to be done to determine just how and why this strain of E. coli O157:H7 could have gotten into this body of water and how that led to contamination of romaine lettuce from multiple farms.” They also did not discuss why it took them so long to test an obvious source of contamination, such as the irrigation water.
The CDC used whole genome sequencing (WGS) that provided fingerprints for pathogens was used to analyze 184 isolates from ill consumers. They found that the E. coli O157:H7 causing the outbreak was resistant to chloramphenicol, streptomycin, sulfisoxazole, tetracycline, and trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole.  Isolates from four of those ill people also contained genes for resistance to ampicillin and ceftriaxone. However, these resistances do not impact patients since these antibiotics are not recommended for treatment of E. coli O157 infections.
CDC and FDA need to do more work to determine just how and why this strain of E. coli O157: H7 could have gotten into this body of water and how that led to contamination of romaine lettuce from multiple farms. 

New techniques make the investigation more efficientE. coli outbreak

In his statement, Scott Gottlieb, FDA commissioner, praised the work of the CDC during this outbreak and the utilization of new technologies such as WGS claiming “What’s happening is that our ability to identify outbreaks has dramatically improved due to new information technologies and laboratory techniques. “
Dr. Gottlieb said “Despite our best efforts to ensure the safest food supply possible, foodborne illness continues to occur in the U.S. and elsewhere around the globe. In the U.S., CDC — the agency that primarily detects multi-state outbreaks of illness — estimates that foodborne illness affects nearly 50 million people annually, which is about one in six Americans. Of these, an estimated 128,000 people are hospitalized, and 3,000 die each year. These numbers are tragically high… We need to take additional steps, and do it faster, to improve the safety of our food supply. “
He promised that”When appropriate and available, we’ll release information on retail outlets where contaminated foods may have been purchased if this information can quicken a recall or help a consumer better identify a product.” as was done with pre-cut melon.
Missing from this discussion is the need for better tracking mechanisms that will allow the FDA and food manufacturers and processors to quickly identify the source of an outbreak and remove the products from the shelves.
Finally, Dr. Gottlieb said, “I remain committed to investing in FDA’s food program, and building on its success — and to applying the FDA’s food safety expertise to protect American families and keep them safe.” 

Smart Sensors are Coming and will Improve Food Safety


What are Smart Sensors?

In our previous blog, we described how several new technologies (smart sensors, IoT, blockchain and the cloud) are being combined to make the tracing of food safety better.
What is a smart Sensor? It is a device or instrument that takes input from the physical environment and uses built-in computation resources to process data and present it in a more accurate, efficient, and informative way. In most cases, they combine a sensing element with a microprocessor that processes the data and sends it to the user. Lately, smart sensors can also communicate with the internet as part of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Types of Sensors

Time-temperature sensors

Because of their simplicity, low cost, affordability, and efficiency, Time Temperature indicators are widely used. In many facilities, the temperature of incubators, refrigerators, and freezers are automatically monitored, and the data is sent electronically to users. Such system provides unprecedented visibility and traceability, providing temperature data with time and date stamps. The logged data meets 21 CFR Part 11 requirements for electronic recordkeeping, which satisfies the regulatory agencies.
The measures time-temperature during the shipping of produce, providing time and date stamps, and temperature data points, transmitted via Bluetooth. This measurement allows the food company to have instant access to temperature data from anywhere, and alerts are sent immediately if the temperature is out of spec. Having this information allows taking corrective action fast before the problem escalates.  The processor also maintains all of its data digitally.
Companies like Monnit and Delta Trak are integrating smart sensors and devices into refrigerators, freezers and the shipping process to create a seamless e-tracking that keeps food cold. The systems provide instant notification via email or text to smartphones or computers.
The disposable, low-cost sensor measures temperature, moisture, and metabolite, and sent the data through wireless communications to the Internet.

Freshness Sensors

Some technologies and companies are providing innovative solutions to produce and other product freshness. Below are a few examples.
Zest Fresh labs provide a freshness management solution to growers, shippers, and retailers.  The quality of each pallet of produce is monitored and managed, providing true transparency with real-time, event-driven notifications. To determine the freshness and remaining shelf life, the system calculates the freshness capacity of the product (the total possible shelf life at harvest and dynamically updated based on actual handling and conditions since harvest), and the rate of change of aging for each pallet of product. Wireless IoT temperature sensors are inserted into the pallets at harvest, the product’s condition is monitored and, combined with cloud-based artificial intelligence, machine learning, and predictive analytics dynamically calculates the freshness metric.
FreshSurety  uses a low cost, disposable sensor that records and reports each location every ten minutes the data for the temperature, moisture, and metabolite from the time a pallet is assembled in the field to the time it’s broken down at the retailer. Using wireless communication, the sensors data is sent to the internet. The information is converted to product freshness and shelf life assessments at the carton level. A spoilage algorithm (product specific) uses an algorithm that translates the data values into shelf life reports with a quantitative freshness score for each individual cartons and pallets.
ETH Zurich developed a biodegradable, ultra-thin (thinner than a human hair), micro-sensor to measure that temperature-sensitive products are kept at a temperature that will prevent spoilage. The sensor will completely dissolve in 67 days, and function for a day when submerged in water. The time is sufficient for monitoring fish shipment from Japan to Europe.
FoodFresh sensor is very sensitive to gaseous decay products of fruit, vegetables, milk and milk products, fish and meat. For example, the sensor is sensitive to ethanol that is being produced in the fermentation of sugars in fruit and vegetables. Banana release ethylene during ripening; the sensor converts to ethanol. The sensor is also sensitive to amines such as putrescine and cadaverine that are by-products in the spoilage of meat and fish. The sensor has an electrode that is compact, fast responding, low cost, and consumes no power. The sensor results in a go-no-go result. The system sensor reports to the IoT the data of safety, and quality for each individual produce cases anywhere in the world at a few cents per case.
C2Sense  developed a small digital odor receptor for the IoT and transferred the smell into data that can be accessed remotely in real time. The C2 solution relies on the development of sensors that can monitor specific volatiles related to spoilage of various food products.  Data from the sensor is sent to the cloud, it is processed by a custom algorithm, and a report of gas concentration is sent to the customer’s mobile customers through the interactive web portal.

Intelligent Packaging Sensors

Intelligent packaging sensors are sensors embedded in the food package, showing information about the product quality, monitor interactions between the food, the packaging, and the environment. It is usually a label that is attached to the outside of the container. On package, sensors are an emerging field that is rapidly growing.

Time Temperature sensors

Time-temperature indicators are essential to the quality and safety of refrigerated and frozen foods.
Fresh-check is a self-adhesive sensor that is formulated to match the food shelf-life, attached to the package. The active circle center darkens faster at higher temperatures. As the active center is exposed to temperature over time, it gradually changes color becoming totally dark when the product should not be used. Other similar devices include Timestrip provides clear, irreversible visual evidence and distinct time marking of the thermal abuse phase for dual temperature thresholds.
3M™ MonitorMarkself-adhesive sensor is showing results indicating both exposure and relative time over which exposure occurred.

Freshness Sensors

adopted from Ripe Sense

On package freshness sensors typically monitor changes in pH, gas composition in the headspace or other biochemical reaction. The changes are mainly monitored by color changes due to the presence of microbial metabolites.  Some examples of freshness sensors:
RipeSense  from New Zealand developed the first sensor that changes color due to the ripening of fruits. The sensor works by reacting to the aromas released by the fruit as it ripens. The sensor is initially red, and gradually changes to orange and eventually to yellow.
CheckPack is not yet a product, but a research project. They are developing an optical sensor that can be integrated into food packaging.  The purpose is to detect spoilage of food products (through volatile compounds concentrations) and check food packaging integrity (through CO2 and O2 concentrations).

Adopted from Y. Galagan and W. F. Su, 2008

Fadable Ink is widely used in printed labels on food packages as a freshness indicator. The ink disappears as time passes, indicating that the food lost its freshness (Y. Galagan and W. F. Su, 2008. “Fadable ink for time-temperature control of food freshness: Novel new time-temperature indicator,” Food Research International, vol. 41, pp. 653-657). The ink in the label reacts with oxygen that makes the color disappear; the rate of change depends on the chemical composition of the ink.
There are many on-package sensors under development, including a label based on two (methyl red (MR) and bromo cresol purple (BCP)) pH indicators, to monitor the beef freshness. The MR changes its color from red to yellow, while the BCP change its color from yellow to purple. pH changes due to deterioration make the label darker as the meat deteriorate. Another label sensor relies on color changes, related to total volatile amine levels and microbial growth patterns in fish samples. These responses enabled the real-time monitoring of fish spoilage
In a future blog, we will discuss more sensors that are currently available to be connected with IoT.

Smart Sensors, the Internet-of-Things, Blockchain and the Cloud the perfect combination for food safety-Introduction

A number of exciting new technologies are combining together to make tracing of food safety better. They include the combination of “smart” sensors transmitting their data into the Internet-of-Things (IoT). The information is made secure through Blockchain. The massive amount of data generated by the process resides in the cloud. While most of these technologies are in their infancy, significant strides are made to make them a reality.

Smart Sensors


Advancement in technology and automation brought us smart sensors that become more prevalent now. smart sensor is a device or instrument that takes input from the physical environment and uses built-in compute resources to perform predefined functions upon detection of specific input and then process data before passing it on.
Typically a smart sensor is the combination of a sensing element with processing capabilities provided by a microprocessor. The signal from the sensor is fed into a microprocessor that processes the data and provides an informative output to an external user.

Types of Sensors

The measures time-temperature during the shipping of produce, providing time and date stamps, and temperature data points, transmitted via Bluetooth. This allows the food company to have instant access to temperature data from anywhere, and alerts are sent immediately if the temperature is out of spec. This allows taking corrective action fast before the problem escalates.  The processor also maintains all of its data digitally
FreshSurety records and reports location, temperature, and freshness every ten minutes from the time a pallet is assembled in the field to the time it’s broken down at the retailer.
The low-cost disposable sensor measures temperature, moisture and metabolite and reports the data through to the internet through wireless communications. The information provided by the sensor is used to assess the freshness and shelf-life, at the carton level, to allow the purchasing agent to make logical purchasing decisions.
There are many other sensors for food safety and quality ( ) including sensors that act as an electronic nose for fruit ripeness, biosensors for pathogen detection, to name a few.  We will dedicate a special Blog to these sensors.

Internet-of-Things (IoT)


IoT is a system of interrelated computing devices or sensors, mechanical and digital, that are capable to gather and transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction. The devices are typically embedded with electronic, and software with connectivity and automated data exchange. As the Internet connects people, the IoT connects things.
IoT allows the various devices the ability to monitor, interact and communicate with each other. Each “Thing” is a miniaturized sensor, with a microprocessor able to send and receive messages wirelessly. A separate blog will be devoted to IoT

Block Chain


Blockchain – is a decentralized, shared log of data maintained on a network of computers, rather than a physical ledger. It is a digital ledger of records that are organized in chunks of data called blocks.
The blocks are then linked with one another through a cryptographic (secure communications) validation. The linked blocks form an unbroken chain — a blockchain. It gives the network participants the ability to share ledger data. Each participant on the network can act as publisher and subscriber.
The main innovation of Blockchain is that it keeps all data in a sequence of “blocks,” which are spread over a computer network of nodes. It is impossible for any user to change or remove data because: (i) There is no central authority; (ii) because copies of the ledger are stored on every node. Whatever is put on the blockchain is cast in stone.
The main features of blockchain network include the ability of participants on each node to know where the products came from and how ownership changed over time. The blockchain provides a single place to determine the movement of goods. 
In the past, we have discussed Blockchain and its use in food safety.

How do blockchain and IoT fit together?

IoT allows creating a network of sophisticated smart devices or sensors. Data is the main component generated by the IoT. In order to function, an IoT network is required to send and receive large amounts of data; some of it is sensitive data. Blockchain has the potential to significantly increase both the security and level of automation of data transactions.  It is a powerful way to get decentralized security and trust to smart sensors on the IoT by recording the data on the blockchain.

Where does the cloud fit?

The cloud is a giant platform to store data. The data enters the cloud through the network; it is processed (doing the required calculations) and either returned to the user or stored on the cloud until it is further needed.


It seems that food safety is facing a revolution in the coming years, taking advantage of technological achievements that are currently being developed for numerous industrial and personal applications, including various food commercial fields.  Ask-bioexpert will follow this revolution as it develops and points out the challenges relating specifically to food safety.

Next Blogs

We will devote a number of blogs to discuss the various elements of the system, including the various smart sensors available for food safety, their utilization with IOT and blockchain.

Should tracing the source of the E. coli O157:H7 in lettuce be a top priority?

Almost three months after the outbreak started, consumers, the food industry, the government agencies (CDC and FDA) are getting antsy because the source of contamination for the E. coli O157: H7 in lettuce is still unknown.  Most of the focus is currently on traceability. Should the focus be there?

The human toll

This outbreak took a huge human toll.  According to an update by the CDC by now, 197 people from 35 states were infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7.   48% of them have been hospitalized, including 26 people who developed hemolytic uremic syndrome; five deaths have been reported from Arkansas (1), California (1), Minnesota (2), and New York (1).
The CDC emphasizes that most of the newly reported cases involve people who fell ill two to three weeks ago, when contaminated lettuce from the Yuma, Arizona, area was still available to consumers. Some people also got sick after “close contact” with infected individuals. It is important to accentuate that most people got sick before the CDC announcement not to eat romaine lettuce from Yuma.

The economic Toll

Beyond the human suffering, the E. coli outbreak caused enormous losses to growers, retailers, and disrupted supply chains as restaurants scrambled to find romaine lettuce alternatives. “During the week of April 14 (the week the news broke), romaine dollar sales fell 20%, which pushed total lettuce performance down by double digits: iceberg lettuce dollar sales were down 19%; red leaf lettuce dollar sales fell 16%; and endive dollar sales dipped 17%,” according to a Nielsen report on National Salad Month.
In May, Romaine sales fell nearly 45%, according to the WSJ, iceberg fell 22%, and red leaf fell 17%. Prices for whole heads of romaine lettuce were down 60%. This deadly outbreak had shaken consumer’s confidence in leafy greens and especially lettuce, resulting in millions of dollars of losses for growers, retailers, and restaurants.”

The letter from consumer groups to FDA

After two outbreaks of E. coli O157: H7 in lettuce, that both went unsolved, 9 consumer and food safety groups (Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention; Center for Science in the Public Interest; Consumer Federation of America; Consumers Union; Food & Water Watch: National Consumers League; The Pew Charitable Trusts; STOP Foodborne Illness; and the Trust for America’s Health.) wrote a letter to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb  In the letter, the organizations demand that FDA should add regulations within the next six months “for comprehensive and rapid traceability of produce, including leafy greens.”
In the letter they claim that existing recordkeeping requires only “one step forward, one step back” records that result in “tangled web of inconsistent and inadequate” information for those tracking outbreaks. They claim that “Part of the purpose of this (FSMA) landmark legislation was to enhance traceability in the event of an outbreak of foodborne illness, allowing the FDA to trace back illness to its source and implement swifter and more accurate recalls.”  “The repeated outbreaks linked to produce and leafy greens since passage of FSMA leave no doubt that these products belong in the “high-risk” category. “
The primary focus of this letter is an improvement of traceability of the lettuce suggesting blockchain as one of the options.

FDA effort to trace the source

On May 31, Scott Gottlieb, M.D. Commissioner of the FDA, and Stephen Ostroff, M.D FDA’s Deputy Commissioner issued an update on the traceback efforts to find the source of the  E. coli O157:H7. This investigation includes the study of the multiple steps (suppliers, distributors, and processors cutting the lettuce, and bagging it). It starts at the farm and ends at the bags, attempting to accurately follow the pass of the contaminated lettuce to the supermarket, restaurant or other location where it was sold or served to consumers that got sick. 
The traceback efforts intend to find points of convergence from several well-identified clusters of illness with a common point of exposure, such as a supermarket or restaurant. A line is drawn for each cluster from one point in the supply chain to another point.  Intersections in the line can lead back to a common location that might be the source of contamination.
As can be seen in the diagram below there are no obvious points of convergence along the supply chain. The exception is whole head lettuce served in the Alaska correctional facility (see the middle of the chart).  The reason for the easy traceback is that it was not processed and was not mixed with lettuce from multiple farms.
Figure 1: traceback diagram for FDA investigation of multistate outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infections linked to romaine lettuce from Yuma growing region.
The data indicates that there is no simple explanation on how the outbreak occurred. It also indicates that the contamination happened in the Yuma growing area and not later. They speculate that “contamination occurred on multiple farms at once, through some sort of environmental contamination (e.g., irrigation water, air/dust, water used for pesticide application, animal encroachment).” Dr. Gottlieb and Dr. Ostroff acknowledge that the source of contamination might be challenging to find.

Is blockchain and traceability the solution?

As explained in a previous blog a bag of lettuce might contain pieces of lettuce from more than one farm, making tracing a piece of lettuce to a particular farm very difficult. The efforts by FDA to trace back to the source demonstrate the challenges.
Even if we had a perfect traceback system, it might not have helped significantly in preventing the outbreak. Since it takes a couple of weeks to identify that there is an outbreak, by the time that CDC and FDA realized that there is an outbreak related to lettuce most of the ill people had already consumed the product.
“If they (FDA) know the points of sale, why not say so,” said William Marler. According to Bill Marle  “there are at least four separate clusters, the one in Alaska linked to Harrison Farm, one on the East Coast linked to Panera Bread and Freshway, and two on the West Coast linked to Papa Murphy’s and Red Lobster.” He is working to file lawsuits against the place of purchase of the contamination of the romaine to force the disclosure of distributors that sold the contaminated lettuce.

Where to Focus?

A new task force has been initiated to improve food safety around leafy greens, Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and a member of the task force steering committee said: “There’s been a recognition that the industry … and the science community and all the stakeholders in this effort need to come together again and take a good, hard look at everything that is available and see if we can’t figure out what steps can be taken so that we reduce the risk of this kind of thing happening again,” he also quoted Horsfall. “I would say that we’re going to focus heavily on practices that are going to prevent illnesses in the future because traceback and the investigation often just take a long time, so far better if we prevent the pathogens from ever getting in the marketplace.”
Perhaps scientists from academia, farmers, and other experts from all over the country should be tasked with solving the contamination problem rather than merely the traceability issue.

E. coli outbreak in lettuce- Can blockchain Traceability Change the Recall Process?


Two outbreaks of lettuce infected with E. coli: source not found

In the last several months two outbreaks related to romaine lettuce were reported.
First Outbreak: The first outbreak was announced on December 11, 2017, by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), involving 21 STEC O157:H7 infections in three provinces linked to romaine lettuce.
The CDC PulseNet (the national subtyping network of public health and food regulatory agency laboratories), identified a cluster of five STEC O157:H7 infections in the United States. (CDC ) Whole Genome Sequencing showed that the cases in both countries were genetically closely related.
In the US 25 people were infected with the outbreak strain in 15 states. The source of the outbreak was not identified to a specific type of leafy greens.
The second case:  This outbreak got much public attention. According to the CDC as of May 16, 2018 outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7 caused 172 confirmed cases of illnesses in 32 states, 75 people have been hospitalized, 20 with hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), and one death.  There were also six illnesses reported in Canada due to this strain. The romaine lettuce was never recalled, but at a certain point, the CDC advises consumers not to eat romaine lettuce unless they are confident it does not come from the Yuma, AZ. The CDC recommends to restaurants not to serve romaine lettuce unless they are sure its source is outside the Yuma area. The advice not to consume romaine lettuce from Yuma came late after the bulk of the outbreak was over.

Consumers Letter to Dr. Gottlieb FDA Commissioner Requesting Faster Traceability of Leafy Green

As a result of the two unsolved leafy green outbreaks,  9 consumer and food safety groups (Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention; Center for Science in the Public Interest; Consumer Federation of America; Consumers Union; Food & Water Watch: National Consumers League; The Pew Charitable Trusts; STOP Foodborne Illness; and the Trust for America’s Health.) send a letter to the FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb  demanding to add regulations within the next six months “for comprehensive and rapid traceability of produce, including leafy greens.” In the letter, they claim that current records-keeping result in “tangled web of inconsistent and inadequate” information for those tracking outbreaks. “The repeated outbreaks linked to produce and leafy greens since passage of FSMA leave no doubt that these products belong in the “high-risk” category.  
Leafy greens are responsible for more cases of E. coli illness than any other produce, the group noted.
They continue “Current technology makes it possible for retailers to track and trace products with extraordinary speed and accuracy. Retailers using advanced technology, such as blockchain, now report they can identify the origin of certain produce shipments in as little as 2.2 seconds…it is no longer acceptable that the FDA has no means to swiftly determine where a bag of lettuce was grown or packaged. It is no longer acceptable that the FDA has no means to swiftly determine where a bag of lettuce was grown or packaged.” The 2.2 seconds comes from a Walmart study with mangoes and suggests blockchain as the solution. Frank Yiannas, VP of food safety in Walmart said: “The romaine incident is a perfect example of a real-world scenario where if tools were available it might be managed a bit more effectively.” Yannas believe that blockchain could have lead investigators to the source of contamination.

Is blockchain the solution to the problem?

What does Blockchain offer?

Blockchain technology offers secure data transactions helping the food supply chain transparency and traceability with one technology. Its distinct feature is its assurance of data integrity, which makes the records trustworthy.
Each entry is logged into a worksheet in sequence as it is entered, and it is checked and validated against specifications that have been programmed into the system. After some entries have been validated, they are entered into an individual time-stamped worksheet as a “block” of verified data. The worksheet is digitally “locked” to prevent any further additions or changes to the record. These verified blocks of data are linked to form a chain of worksheets (i.e., records) that cannot be altered

Status of blockchain technology: experiments done to date

Walmart brought blockchain to the attention of the food industry when it conducted a trial with sliced mangoes. Partnering with IBM, Dole and Driscoll’s, and using bar-coding technology, they showed how the system could improve food safety by speeding up food recalls and increase operational efficiencies. Walmart was able to trace the mangoes at every point and access product data that took 18 hr and 22 sec — in just 2.2 seconds.
 Cargill created a blockchain-based system that allowed consumers to trace, a limited number, of Honeysuckle turkeys from farm to table. They used the technology to create a transparent digital trail of farm-to-store. The system allowed the buyers to enter a package code on their computers to access a website where they could learn more about the farmer and family farm where the turkey was raised.   Carrefour the French grocery chain, launched the first European food blockchain to trace and track the production of its free-range Quality Line Auvergne chicken products. The grocery chain also plans to extend its blockchain program to include hamburgers, among other products, by the end of 2018.
TE-Foods in partnership with partnered with HALAL TRAIL are using blockchain to ensure halal food, and provide food traceability and quality verification services for the sector. They plan to initiate two pilot projects in June 2018 track chickens and lambs in Lancaster, Tunbridge Wells & Manchester, U.K. as a reference to be implemented globally. is utilizing blockchain to enhance traceability for local suppliers (within 250-mile radius) and connect them with chefs, supermarkets, and institutional buyers. Farmers can use the platform to access local urban markets and respond to opportunities. The platform allows streamlining and aggregation of inventory from multiple farms, thereby creating an efficient, reliable and transparent market where buyers can place all of their orders. The use of blockchain by platform allows to optimize routes and update in real-time the data. This benefits farmers, buyers, and consumers from the more localized economy.
These examples show that some companies are testing the application of blockchain technology for the food industry. While there is lots of buzz around the technology, it is important to remember that the technology is in its infancy.  

Unique problems with leafy greens

As the lettuce grows in the field, it can be subject to contamination by birds, domestic and wild animals. Such contamination is uneven. In the harvesting step sanitary conditions of the workers can contribute to the contamination. The boxed lettuce is loaded on a truck in many cases; the truck carries boxes from several farms, complicating the tracking. In the processing plant, the lettuce gets mixed. The process does not stop necessarily between farms. Further mixing of the lettuce happened when it gets cut and washed. Therefore in the finished bag, there might be pieces of lettuce from more than one farm.
“To say to consumers that you shouldn’t be consuming romaine lettuce if it came from the Yuma area and yet that information at the point of consumption or the point of purchase isn’t readily available or obvious to the consumer, then that’s a problem,” said Stephen Ostroff, deputy commissioner for food and veterinary medicine at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.


Blockchain technology is a promising technology. It can speed up food recalls and allow for information transparency needed. However, it is important to mention that the technology is in its infancy and might take 5-10 years to mature. There are essential building blocks that must be in place before blockchain implementation
The reduction in food recall time from months to minutes can be achieved after food traceability is in place. First, all supply chain partners harmonize data collection. The biggest hurdle for blockchain will be getting companies throughout the supply chain on board, said Markon CEO and Center for Produce Safety chairman Tim York.